The Complexities of Teaching the Preservation of Modern Architecture


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By: Theodore Prudon
With the gradual and general acceptance, in the US and abroad, that modern heritage like any other heritage is to be preserved, has come the realization that proper professional expertise is needed and to how to best prepare them for that task. Putting definitional or nomenclature issues aside – such as whether we call it preservation or conservation or whether we use modern versus recent past or mid-century – the question of whether the academic curriculum is the same or different and, if not the same as traditional preservation education as existing today, how does it differ. While the scale and ubiquity of modern heritage is often presented as a challenge, it is fundamentally a management challenge and does not require any substantial educational changes. Establishing significance and the related methodologies remain largely unaltered, although scholarship and knowledge that serves as a base will continue to expand as it does for any period.
Photo (left): Pratt historic preservation students receive a demonstration from a stone carver
The real challenge is in the nature of the buildings and their architecture. This is not surprising. An architectural style that saw itself as breaking with the past cannot be expected to be saved through established preservation practices where much of the focus has been on its pure materiality in its appreciation and conservation practices. One of the main difficulties that come up is the experimental nature of the materials and assemblies. While often used as an excuse for negative interventions or no interventions at all, the experimentation and its materials are part of a much larger conceptual issue: modern building is fundamentally systemic as such its preservation must therefore reflect that and also be systemic. Simply put, historic buildings before the arrival of modern architecture were built one stone or brick at the time. By placing one brick on top of the other, the building emerged. The building was a very simple system with a limited number of defining technical components. As a result of this construction its restoration, conceptually speaking, can follow a similar process and individual units can be replaced one brick at the time. For more contemporary buildings failures are systemic – pretty much repeated on all units – plus it is not only the individual components but also the complexity of their integration and performance as a system in all its aspects. The implication is that the approach and the intervention need to be more holistic. Staying with simple comparisons the curtain wall is probably a good example in point of a wall system.
Photo (right): This 2009 image shows a conventional 1920s brick façade on a steel frame being covered with a more contemporary glass and metal curtain wall and in the foreground is a building with a rainscreen wallsystem. While the brick elevation is still a hybrid and not yet much more than a loadbearing masonry building inserted into a steel frame, all three elevation systems, if to be considered for conservation, will require a different knowledge system and will force, each in their own right, a systemic approach.
If the assumption about the systemic nature of modern building is accepted it has two immediate consequences for preservation. Philosophically it introduces the authenticity question that has been in so much discussion in the last two decades but more importantly from a scientific and scholarly viewpoint it places a different demand on the preservationist or conservator. The evaluation of the building more than ever is about the system and its performance and to a lesser extent about the capabilities of the individual materials. To put it into language it will be more about building physics and to a lesser extent about pure material sciences. If the outcome of that intervention is complete replacement, the design of the new system both aesthetically and physically will become the challenge.
Photo (left): Philip Johnson's Glass House, Credit: Liz Waytkus
To return to the scale and ubiquity challenge, this issue more than ever before will force us to be creative. The economic obsolescence as a result of the out-of-date specificity of programmatic requirements forces us to a re-purposing of buildings. The 1960s and the 1970s gave us the term ‘adaptive use’ suggesting finding a new use for a building that is appropriate to that building typology. While that was easy for say adapting a 18th Century textile mill in the northeast to housing or turning a small scale 19th Century building into a restaurant, for the complexity, scale and quantity of buildings we are faced with, it is no longer that simple. Interventions become more architectural and the skill and sensitivity of the designer is more critical. This introduces the challenge to architectural design training as an essential element to preservation of modern heritage and places design central to preservation.
Placing design at the center to the preservation of modern building, a new element has begun to emerge: a phenomena that can be best characterized as over-restoration. In other words modernism restored more modern than it ever was and closer to minimalism than modernism. While in some instances that solution will be argued as ‘if the original designer had been alive he/she would have done or used that’, it does present an inauthenticity that is visual and not just material. Examples of out-modernizing the moderns can be found across the world. 
Photo (right): Manufacturers Hanover Trust now Joe Fresh in NYC, Credit: Liz Waytkus
The final challenge is how to address the sustainability issue. While the embodied energy argument is often rolled out, the continuing increase in scale and size, particularly in the increase of density, places preservation in a position it has never been in before, not even in the 1970s when the sustainability issue first arose as ‘energy conservation’ after the first oil crisis. Maximizing sites and heights combined with operational calculations has created material and technical challenges, especially for more recent buildings (and the curtain wall being the poster child of that discussion) for which most preservationists, if not all, are utterly unprepared. Some of the arguments advocating the midtown zoning proposals in New York City are a good case in point. Increasing density and size as much as 40 or so percent results in favorable calculations that are more about density than sustainability. Again to some extent this challenge is captured by the systemic argument proposed above. 
It would seem from this short analysis that to address the above challenges appropriately, teaching preservation for modern architecture needs to change. The debate thus far has been largely theoretical and primarily based on how to address the material authenticity issue and reconcile the 19th Century Arts and Crafts principles with the demands of modern technology and design. This dialogue needs to move on and begin to address the systemic nature of the architecture of the post war period and how it impacts the actual process of saving/adapting buildings. For education it means essentially two singular challenges and which differentiates the teaching of the preservation of modern architecture beyond traditional approaches. A more cohesive systemic thinking and teaching is necessary that looks at the building as a whole including its aesthetic, functional and physical systems. It places design and building physics central to preservation education next to the determination of significance. Its implication is clear. It means that architects and other design and building professionals need to take a more active role in the process of saving buildings not as a testament of their own creative genius but as sensitive and considerate caretakers. Maybe that is the real challenge.